Back from Extinction

The Muwekma Ohlone Tribe

Editor’s note – Delta historian, Carol A. Jensen, reviewed a Zoom lecture by Alan Leventhal, Professor Emeritus, College of Social Sciences San Jose State University.  It was originally broadcast Sunday, March 6, 2022 2:00 to 3:00 pm and can be seen at the links provided below.

Reed boat transportation.

Californians interested in our state cultural, political and ethnographic history enjoyed a rare public lecture on our San Francisco Bay Area Native American heritage recently. It was sponsored by the Palo Alto Historical Association. The society is dedicated to preserving the City of Palo Alto archives and will soon move into its own museum space. Who knew that the Muwekma (“The People”) Ohlone Tribe, previously known as the “Mission Indians” from Santa Clara, San Jose and Alameda County, would be part of their interest area? Gratefully, it is and this program was recorded. It is now available for free thanks to the Palo Alto Historical Association and Vimeo.

This is by far the most interesting and content rich public lecture on our greater Bay Area Native Americans that I have ever had the pleasure of attending. I was riveted to my personal computer screen and returned to the Vimeo video recording twice more. Alan Leventhal — archaeologist, anthropologist, and ethnohistorian — presents the history, heritage, and genealogy of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area clearly and understandably. This should be required viewing for every K to 12th grade student in the State and their parents.

Long before the Spanish arrived in 1769 to colonize the future state of California, the area from San Francisco/San Mateo to Richmond/Oakland to Morgan Hill was home to the ancestral Muwekma Ohlone Tribes. The Spanish constructed 21 missions along the California coast in 54 years with the objective of Christianizing the native people and culture. Three missions were built around the San Francisco Bay where many Ohlone were brought to be converted: Mission San Francisco de Asis (Mission Dolores), Mission San Jose, and Mission Santa Clara de Thamien (Asis).

Did you ever wonder why the Native American tribe living in the Pleasanton area was referred to the “Verona Rancheria Tribe?” There is no Verona Township in Alameda County. However, there was a Verona railroad depot. What is the origin?  George and Phoebe Apperson Hearst purchased land from the Muwekma’s Alisal Rancheria around 1880. They built La Hacienda del Pozo de Verona on the site known later as Castlewood Country Club. Verona refers to Verona, Italy. The depot was built to serve the Hearst estate. The Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs overseeing the California Indians applied the appellation to “The People” without even a local inquiry, according to Leventhal.

Professor Leventhal traces Ohlone heritage from their aboriginal villages in the Bay Area, through life at the Spanish missions, to their rancherias in the East Bay where the surviving Bay Area Ohlone sought refuge. Part of  the Pleasanton/Amador Valley Muwekma experience includes those individuals fleeing the Mission system and seeking refuge in the San Joaquin River Delta. John Marsh encountered Polpones (later Julpin) tribal members suffering from smallpox and the health effects of mission neophyte life in 1836. Marsh cared for and employed tribal members living in today’s eastern Contra Costa County and named his 14,000 + acre Rancho de los Megaños de las Polpones after the tribe. In this public lecture, we learn about these landless refugees from the mission system and why the Ohlone still struggle to regain federal recognition from the United States government.

Shellmound sites were constructed earth mound monuments for the dead elites and fallen warriors.

Shell mounds of various sizes are found throughout the Bay Area. They are commonly — but mistakenly — assumed to be large garbage dumps created over the centuries by Native Americans sitting atop the mound consuming prodigious amounts of crustaceans, clams, oysters and other shellfish. Presumptively and magically, the mounds grew underneath The People as the generations gorged on shellfish for over 12,000 years of human history. Wrong. According to Leventhal, the mounds were specifically constructed as burials and ceremonial sites, the largest of which could hold as many as 10,000 bodies. The shell mound in Emeryville, for which the freeway offramp and boulevard are named, was 60 feet high and 1,000 feet long. It was finally removed and flattened with the use of a steam shovel in 1926.

A burial or ceremonial site of that immense size certainly impedes marina views, pier-side restaurant parking, and freeway access. As the steam shovel efficiently removed tons of earth during Panama Canal construction, so too this this inconveniently located gravesite/shell mound was jettisoned.  Westward the course of empire.

For many of us, grade school education about California Native Americans consisted of a sugar-cube mission architecture project, paper war bonnets, and affirmation that “Indians” were extinct now. Yet, some could still be “seen” in Nevada reservations. This census was almost true, as only 62 of the descendants of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe were still alive in 1932. This is down from a pre-Spaniard contact with the total indigenous population estimated at the time as 30,000 people living in Alta California. Currently, there are 600 enrolled members of the Muwekma tribe.

Higher college education consisted of reading Ishi in Two Worlds, by Theodora Kroeber, and learning that UC Berkeley Kroeber Hall is where this last aboriginal resided as sort of a living exhibit. This well researched public presentation is the first step in putting an end to this dated ethnography. The one-hour free viewing will awaken a new appreciation of indigenous Californians though historic time and today. Who knew that Zoom viewing could defeat so many cultural mis-truths?

This local historian says “Thank you, Professor Leventhal and the Palo Alto Historical Association!”

Watch this Zoom recording. It will change your misperceptions. This reviewer gives it 5 thumbs up.

Helpful Links:

Professor Levethal’s email:

Palo Alto Historical Association:

Muwekma Tribe website:

Video zoom recording available at:


Alan Leventhal

Alan Leventhal, the presenter of this lecture, joined San Jose State University in 1978 where he was the Anthropology Lab Director for nine years and previously worked in the Dean’s Office, College of Social Sciences until retiring in 2019. He is the author of numerous publications on Bay Area prehistory including California Indian ethnohistory. For the past 42 years, he has worked with the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Region as a tribal ethnohistorian and senior archaeologist.

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